Two American presidents—Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton—had different names (Leslie Lynch King Jr. and William Jefferson Blythe III) before they introduced themselves to the American people, but George Bush is the first who came to be known by a different name after he left the White House.
What’s in a name? In the story of George Herbert Walker Bush, it means a lot. Over the course of his life he has had an unusual number of names, shedding each one as if it were an outer skin. As a boy he was known as “Poppy,” symbolic of being a favorite grandson, but a name he came to detest by the time he reached early adulthood. Then, for a short while, he was “Pop.” Following World War II, when he wanted to seem older and needed to strike out on his own, he became George H. W. Bush, oil entrepreneur and family man. Entering politics in the early 1960s, he dropped the initials to become the more populist George Bush. Thirty years later, after leaving public office and dedicating the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Bush embraced the initials again to differentiate himself from his son George W. Bush. The elder Bush wanted to get out of the younger Bush’s way. The “H. W.” returned, and he exited stage left.
“Who is George Bush?” was a taunt associated with his most stubborn political critics, but it was also asked by many throughout his public life. Like his name, Bush’s political persona was protean and mystified many observers. Self-described, at various times, as a Goldwater conservative, a “responsible conservative,” and a Reaganite, Bush nonetheless supported many of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, had a moderate voting record as a congressman and a philosophically mixed record as president. As a result, even after decades on the national scene, George Bush’s public image never quite seemed in focus. This would be a severe handicap for him as president. When the economy soured in 1991, his poll numbers swiftly collapsed because Americans lacked any strong personal commitment to him. Yet what weakened Bush’s bid for a second term would provide an unexpected boon in his retirement. When George W. Bush’s administration got tangled up in a seemingly endless war in Iraq, the public rediscovered George H. W. Bush and many began to wonder whether they had ever understood or fully appreciated the Bush who had refused to march on Baghdad.
This book will attempt to bring George Bush’s presidency into focus. Even had George W. Bush not been elected, his father’s presidency would have deserved a good hard look. More by accident than by design, it straddled four pivotal years in international politics. The Cold War ended, and a new international system, still dimly understood nearly two decades later, emerged. Although less epochal, important changes were also occurring at home. After Ronald Reagan had shown in 1980 that campaigning for the center was no longer the secret to electoral success, American politics began a descent into bitter polarization. With all of these historically significant things happening around him, was Bush merely a bystander, like Zelig in Woody Allen’s film of the same name, or did he matter, in a larger sense?
For four or eight years, an American citizen is asked to be at once chief of state, head of government, and commander in chief. Already in the early nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson called the presidency a “splendid misery,” and by the twenty-first century it has become a job that is nearly impossible to do well. We still use presidents as a shorthand to chart our history and continue to categorize these individuals as “great,” “near great,” and so on. But can one accurately categorize an entire presidency? Presidents are human beings, who make mistakes and occasionally great decisions. Does Jefferson’s embargo suggest limits to the greatness of the president who approved the Louisiana Purchase? Can the opening to China significantly repair the severe damage to Richard Nixon’s reputation from Watergate? How does one weigh the internment of Japanese Americans in assessing Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms?
For a period of two years, from 1989 until early 1991, George H. W. Bush made a series of very good decisions, some of which deserve to be considered great. Among modern presidents, his handling of the end of the Cold War belongs in the same category as Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to emphasize the war with Hitler over the war against Japan after Pearl Harbor, Dwight Eisenhower’s studied restraint in the face of Soviet provocation and domestic anxiety at the end of the 1950s, and John F. Kennedy’s management of the Cuban missile crisis.
This book offers a portrait of a very human leader. Driven by almost insatiable ambition and competitiveness—seen at its worst in his handling of the Iran-Contra scandal and in the tactics used occasionally on his behalf in political campaigns—Bush would nonetheless serve and govern with humility. Although Bush was emotional and a worrier, his key decisions as president were wise and considered. And while lacking in rhetorical gifts or charisma, he led an administration that impressed adversaries and reassured allies in a period of rapid and dramatic international change. His presidency may not be remembered as great but, as we shall see, George Bush successfully answered the call for greatness when his country required it. And without his brief moment in power, neither of the iconic presidents before or after him—Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton—would have enjoyed the same measure of success.
Copyright © 2007 by Timothy Naftali. All rights reserved.